America the Beautiful

It’s easy to take exception to American exceptionalism. But to do so is to miss the mark, for the perversion of American exceptionalism into “America is the greatest country in the world” is just that, a perversion. Recently, I took a road trip of approximately 3,000 miles across much of the US that did remind me of what real American exceptionalism is. American exceptionalism is not that America is the best at any single thing, or even a host of things, but rather that it is an exceptional project, a grand unfinished symphony (to quote Lin-Manuel Miranda).

Across bone-dry desert flats, we saw staggering beauty in red rocks and trackless wastes of dust and salty alkali, only interrupted by a kind call from the hotel clerk that the restaurant would be closed due to a holiday so we should grab a bite elsewhere before we arrived; across rolling green hills in Texas hill country, we had a tire tear apart and were salvaged in minutes by a highway patrol officer with far better tools, only to be followed up by a stranger couple that let us know their friend was just closing up his tire shop down the road and may still be around to help us get a brand-new tire, not our spare; across cool forests and salty ocean breezes, we marveled at the grandeur of ancient redwoods that had been conserved by tireless environmentalists decades before; at a classic American diner in Oregon we had our meal paid for by a cook, for reasons unknown…

No country is perfect, all countries are great in different ways due to their natural splendor and, most of all, due to the people who make it their home. That’s the reality of American exceptionalism – not that Americans are all exceptional, but that at our best, as part of the American project, we try to be, and we try to make our political system, our nation, our culture, a place where anyone can try to be as well.

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